Dead Heat

Veteran Danburg tries to hang on against Wong in the new 134th District

How long has Debra Danburg been representing Montrose in the state legislature? When she was first elected, Jimmy Carter was heading the Democratic ticket.

How much longer will she be representing Montrose? That's a much more difficult question to answer.

In part, the answer is easy -- because of redistricting, the eastern half of Montrose is no longer in her district. But because of that redistricting, the 52-year-old Danburg, who's been in the legislature since 1980, faces the real possibility of seeing her tenure in Austin end.

After 22 years in the state House, Danburg faces an uphill battle.
Deron Neblett
After 22 years in the state House, Danburg faces an uphill battle.
Wong represented much of the new district on City Council.
Jeff Fitlow
Wong represented much of the new district on City Council.

Not only is her new District 134 designed to elect a Republican, but the Republican she faces is well financed and armed with high name recognition: former city councilmember Martha Wong.

It's a race that sees Democrat Danburg arguing she's more fiscally conservative than the Republican Wong, while Wong is trying to reassure voters she's a social moderate who somehow won't have to deal with abortion rights issues in Austin.

"It's an extremely close race -- it likely will have a margin of a few hundred votes, maybe even a few dozen," says University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray.

The district now includes such Houston enclaves as River Oaks, West University Place, Bellaire, Meyerland and the Museum District. It's a highly educated, mostly white and affluent district that tends to get out and vote -- about 67,000 did so in 2000, Murray says, compared to an average of 40,000 for house districts statewide.

Both sides tend to agree that the district splits about 55-45 in favor of the GOP, but both also note that there are plenty of independents among its residents.

Twenty of the district's 52 precincts were in Danburg's former district; 24 were in Wong's District C City Council constituency.

"The Republicans are going to vote Republican; it's just a matter of getting the vote out," says Wong, a 63-year-old "semiretired" educator. "Independent people who voted in the city elections know me and know me well, and they will vote for me."

"The race is shaping up as 'too close to call,' " says Danburg, "which is a lot better than what it was with a district drawn up to be 55 percent Republican…We have more independents in this district than almost any district in the state, we have more people who do split their tickets, and there are Democrats who have carried this district, like Paul Hobby and Eric Andell." (Hobby ran for state comptroller in 1998, Andell for an appellate judgeship in 2000.)

Murray says the district "is winnable by a strong Democrat. This year looks like it will be a good ticket-splitting year, with [Democratic lieutenant governor candidate] John Sharp probably a winner, and he always does well with ticket-splitting. That's Debra's hope, to overcome the generic-Republican edge. But Martha's got a good résumé and is a tireless campaigner."

The races should cost each candidate around $400,000 -- Danburg on the lower side of that level, Wong above.

Almost all of that will be spent on mailouts, although Wong is on the air with radio ads. Both are also doing lots of blockwalking in neighborhoods each claims to be intimately familiar with even if they haven't represented them.

When the talk turns to economics, both try to outshout each other in offering hosannas to big business. "Many of our CEOs live in the district," Wong says, "and so it's people who are going to help run our city, and [it's] corporate America, and I think it's important that they have someone who is going to represent their viewpoint at the state legislature, and I think I am going to be able to that. I know I will."

(Finally corporate America can have a voice in the legislative process!)

"I'm really good at balancing business and environment," Danburg says. "I'm very much of an environmentalist, but virtually every bill I have passed that's environmentalist has either been supported by business or business has been completely neutral."

(Yes, "business" always supports only the toughest environmental bills.)

Wong claims Danburg has voted 74 times to raise taxes (a claim her campaign manager later modifies to 74 times raising taxes "or to make raising your taxes easier").

"Her voting record does not represent what the people in this district want," Wong says. "Her whole history has been someone who is not a fiscal conservative, so I think she is certainly disguising her former votes when she presents herself in that manner."

Danburg disputes the figure of 74, which she says includes procedural votes and matters designed to actually block taxes. In the oil-bust years, she says, "Governor Bill Clements, John Sharp and a whole bunch of us were working together to 1) balance the budget and 2) avoid an income tax. So there were a bunch of little bitty tax and fee increases."

In fact, Danburg's literature claims that "only one candidate is protecting your pocketbook." Wong, she notes, voted for a property tax increase while on City Council.

While Danburg is at least somewhat on the defensive on economic issues, the roles are reversed on social issues. Wong has to convince voters she's not a rabid right-to-lifer, and so far she's been using a strategy of hoping the subject goes away.

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